Oration at Anne Devlin commemoration 2021

I was delighted to have been asked to speak at the Anne Devlin 2021 commemoration today. My friend, historian Mícheál O’Doibhilín, has been running this commemoration since 2006, taking place at the graveside of Anne Devlin, the great revolutionary and co-conspirator of Robert Emmet in the 1803 Rising against British rule in Ireland. Remarkably, today’s date marked the 170th anniversary of Anne’s death. Of note, the crowd was restricted and the event not advertised due to the on-going Covid-19 restrictions. Full report here on Mícheál’s Kilmainham Tales website.

Video below:

Full text of oration:

Today, as in many times passed, on the 170th anniversary of her passing, we gather to remember the extraordinary life of Anne Devlin, and her devotion and bravery to the cause of freedom of her country.Her efforts, and those of her contemporaries, for the cause of Irish freedom continue to inspire us and will always be worthy of celebration and remembrance – even in a limited gathering such as this.

The high republican idealism espoused by the Society of United Irishmen spoke of an Ireland which foresaw an “equal representation of all the people” in a “national government” and ultimately, a fair and just society for all who called Ireland their home. In remembering Anne, we also pay tribute to those who took part in the United Irishmen’s brave, if doomed, insurrectionary efforts in both 1798 and 1803, the latter of course led by Robert Emmet himself.

Make no mistake, these attempts at the overthrow of British rule by the United Irishmen were in response to the unequal society and divided country the organisation was formed in. The events of 1798 and 1803 took place within a world shaped by the machinations of empires and the upheaval of revolutions in France and America.

As we look in hope to possibly the closing months of the current pandemic, which has affected every strata of our society and impacted our entire way of life – it is incumbent on us to not only perhaps pick up the pieces and embark on a renewal of self, but question how we in fact may shape our society, our country, and our world, for the better and the good of all. One source of inspiration in this can perhaps be found in recalling the ideals and bravery by all who have fought for the cause of Irish freedom in times passed.

In Anne’s life we see such devotion to this cause. Born into the Devlin family in Wicklow in 1780, Anne’s life changed with the outbreak of rebellion in 1798. The insurrection her saw her home raided on many occasions, her father imprisoned, and her cousin Michael Dwyer becoming a great rebel commander whilst on-the-run in the hills of Wicklow. When Robert Emmet began to pick up the pieces of the United Irishman movement in the rebellion’s aftermath, he wished to secure the services of a reliable individual to be his housekeeper at his secret headquarters in Butterfield Lane in Rathfarnham.

Anne’s cousin, Arthur, still close to the republican movement, sent Anne to assist Emmet with anything he needed. As Anne explained to one of her biographers, Brother Luke Cullen, ‘… it is a great mistake to say that I was a hired servant.’ As Emmet began plotting a new rebellion in the months leading to July 1803, Anne told Cullen how she was trusted in the confidence of Emmet and his lieutenants, she said ‘If I happened to enter on household business to the drawing room, Mr. Emmet… and some others would never break off their discourse, even if on the most dangerous part of their plans… I often overheard them say, ‘Anne is one of ourselves.’’ Make no mistake, Anne Devlin was a chief conspirator in the plans for the rebellion of 1803 and recognised as such as by Robert Emmet.

Anne Devlin Commemoration 2021

Speaking the oration at the Anne Devlin commemoration in 2021.

In the disastrous aftermath of the rebellion, Anne would endure the grim torture of a mock hanging in Butterfield Lane, only the beginning of her ordeals In the walls of Kilmainham Gaol, she suffered horrific conditions in solitary confinement and resisted all attempts to break her by the great spy of Dublin Castle, Dr. Edward Trevor. Among the horrors Trevor inflicted on Anne which saw the imprisonment of her entire family, a stay in Kilmainham which resulted in the death of her nine year-old brother, James. It is indeed ironic that Emmet’s rising while only lasting a few hours resulted in this horrific experience for Anne for three years until her release in 1806. Her devotion to Emmet and his cause would of course continue shape the remainder of her life.

With Anne’s anniversary today, one must remark of the extraordinary coincidence of the anniversary of Emmet’s death falling on 20th September. Not even Emmet claimed the fighting that July night in 1803 constituted a truly great effort. But in seeing the type of society he envisaged in his Proclamation of 1803, or the fiery idealism of his Speech from the Dock, we get a sense of this extraordinary individual to whose cause Anne was devoted. Even his alleged words to the crowd gathered on Thomas Street to witness his execution, ‘My friends, I die in peace and with sentiments of universal love and kindness towards all men’ reveal an extraordinary compassion from one of Ireland’s greatest revolutionaries.

In the sketches of her life in the aftermath of her imprisonment, we know Anne Devlin married one William Campbell in 1811 and had four children. It is incredible in all these years after she continued to be tracked by the authorities in Dublin Castle, but as in those awful years in Kilmainham Gaol, she never betrayed anything of Emmet’s rebellion or those who supported him. As she explained to Cullen, ‘I was of the opinion that some of the persons connected with that affair did not choose to acknowledge even a slight acquaintance with me… But they could not take better care of themselves then I did of them while I held the thread of their existence in my fingers.’

It is likely due to the continued interest in her by the authorities, that by her death in 1851, she died in utter poverty and in obscurity in her home in the Liberties; alone and forgotten by Emmet’s supporters.

The great biographer of the United Irishmen, RR Madden, who did so much to bring her story to the world was shocked to find Anne had passed on a returning visit to her home. Mistaking her place of burial in Glasnevin cemetery for a mere pauper’s grave, Madden had Anne’s remains removed from their previous site and brought to this current location. While undoubtedly well intentioned by Madden, his was an enormous mistake and an unnecessary humiliation for a great Irish revolutionary, who had in fact been buried with her husband William. It is right we continue to support the efforts of Cuimhní Anne Devlin in reuniting Anne and her husband together in death; as was her wish and intent.

Madden once wrote, ‘The day will come when the name of Anne Devlin… will be spoken of with feelings of kindness, not unmixed with admiration.’ And as today, as in years past, we will continue to gather by her graveside and remember her story. But as we remember, we also give thanks to Anne Devlin for her devotion to the ideals of Robert Emmet and her part in the fight for Irish freedom within that extraordinary generation.

With my friend, historian Mícheál Ó Doibhilín. at the 2021 Anne Devlin commemoration. I was so grateful to be asked to speak.

With my friend, historian Mícheál Ó Doibhilín, by Anne Devlin’s graveside. I was so grateful to be asked to speak at the 2021 commemoration.